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How to help a friend or family member who’s being abused

If you suspect a loved one is being physically, emotionally or financially abused, here’s what to do

The control was gradual, Dana recalls. At first, her husband began creating conflicts with important people in her life, including her parents. After their daughter was born, he pushed for a cross-country move, cutting Dana off from her support network. They’d fight, and he’d threaten to use the depression and anxiety she was experiencing against her, saying he’d paint her as an unfit mother. Before she finally left for good, he held her hostage in the house, took away her phone and threw her to the ground when she banged on the window for a neighbour’s attention.

But none of her friends or family members knew how dangerous Dana’s home life had become. “I hid so much of what the reality was,” Dana says. “A lot of us do.” She didn’t want people to know she was in an unhappy relationship; it made her feel like she was failing. And she didn’t know how to explain the abuse, as her now-ex would try to manipulate her into thinking she’d wronged him.

Statistics show women will leave several times before they cut ties for good, and they have good reasons for doing so”

Eventually, though, she revealed a few details to a close friend, and the friend expressed her concern. “She said, ‘Hey, I think this is wrong,’” Dana recalls. Her friend didn’t tell Dana she had to leave her husband, and she didn’t condemn her when she would go back to him. Instead, she continued to let Dana know she was there for her, anytime she wanted to talk.

The approach was the right one, says Amanda Dale, executive director of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, a United Way agency that provides legal advice, counselling and other supports for women who are currently in, or have left abusive relationships. It’s tempting to “go into rescue mode,” Dale says, including trying to plan a woman’s escape for her. “But that can feel very similar to the control the abuser has, in form, if not content,” Dale says. “It feels like somebody else is telling you what you should be doing.”

Be supportive

Instead, it’s better to provide non-judgemental support—especially when a friend or family member chooses to stay in or returns to an abusive relationship. Statistics show women will leave several times before they cut ties for good, and they have good reasons for doing so. Dana faced a nine-month custody battle after she left her partner (though her daughter remained with her the whole time). Your loved one has to be emotionally ready to endure what is often a difficult break—and that often requires the gradual building up of esteem that’s been knocked down by the abuser.

Make a plan

One way to help give a friend back some of the control they’ve lost is to create a “safety plan” with them. If a friend has revealed she was afraid during an argument, you could say, “If your partner has another episode like that one, where’s the closest escape in your home? Is there a place you can call?” Dale suggests. Provide phone numbers for local resources like the Schlifer clinic, local shelters and the 24-hour Ontario Assaulted Women’s Helpline.

Get expert help

It’s also okay to call in an expert. Hypothetical fears can often be barriers to leaving, including concerns that a woman will lose her children, get deported from the country or get cut off from financial supports. Community organizations are well versed in a woman’s legal rights and can help allay concerns. They can also help folks secretly create safe escape plans, which is key. “The risk for violence actually rises once he knows she’s thinking about leaving,” explains Dale.

Think twice before opening your door

That’s why Dale suggests advocates think through the risks before offering their homes as temporary housing. “If a very volatile abuser knows where you live, you don’t necessarily want to engage your whole family in that experience,” says Dale. Shelters, on the other hand, can provide more security. That said, a friend’s house might be a good place for a woman to store photocopies of children’s birth certificates and passports, and even money for an eventual escape.

Offer conversation starters

Of course, in the early stages, many folks aren’t ready to use the word ‘abuse,’ let alone make a safety plan. Helping friends to see patterns of control and manipulation can plant the seed that the behaviour is not normal in healthy relationships. You could say something like, “I noticed you’re a lot more scared recently” or “I notice that you’ve stopped talking about the things that used to be important to you,” Dale explains.

Dana suggests frequently reminding the person you’re there for them, and always erring on the side of reaching out. “Say something as opposed to not saying something,” she says.

For more information: The Neighbours, Friends & Families project, which was launched by Western University, offers advice on how to recognize the signs of abuse, what to say and do, and provides a list of community resources across the province.